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Big, good John Miller
Band leader and coordinator of the Arkansas Sounds Music Festival talks about wedding singing and letting them see you sweat.
“Big” John Miller is a 20-year veteran of the music industry and leader of the Big John Miller Band, which performs a mix of blues, soul, funk, rock and jazz. He is also the coordinator for the Arkansas Sounds Music Festival presented by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.
Q: With Valentine’s Day just passed, and probably some new proposals just sprung, I have to first ask about being a wedding singer, because I understand you book a lot of weddings. About how many do you think you do a year, and do you see people booking singers — say, as opposed to a DJ — more these days? Less?
A: Well, first of all, I don’t really think of myself as a wedding singer. Even though the band does play 40 plus weddings a year, we also play probably twice that many dates in clubs and for other private events, so I just consider myself a singer that also plays weddings. I do think competing against DJs has actually made us a better, more diverse band. A DJ has almost any song at their fingertips and can weave multiple styles of music throughout a set. In order to keep up with DJs and other bands, we need to do that too — we have to be really tight and be able to play anything from Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra to Marvin Gaye and Al Green to Prince and AC/DC to “The Cupid Shuffle” and “The Wobble.” It also really helps that we will learn songs for weddings and events, so that helps keep our song list fresh and constantly evolving. Our bookings for weddings have always been pretty steady, but I think more folks are using DJs and iPods now because of the economy. We try and help people out with this by offering a lot of options in the number of musicians — everything from solo voice and duos to my regular five-piece band to a 15-piece big band with a full horn section and background singers, that way people can choose what’s right for them.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d guess a lot of people hear “wedding singer” and think of the 1998 Adam Sandler movie. I’m curious, even not identifying that way, how that movie impacted the job. Did you see a change in popularity after that? Or what about perception? Did people look at you (or the job) differently?
A: Honestly, I’ve never even seen the movie! It didn’t ever seem to affect the job but perhaps that could explain some of the wedding singer jokes!
Q: I’m also curious if weddings are a particular niche that’s different from other performances or basically just like any other show? I mean, here you have two families getting together and they may not always be thrilled about the union. While ostensibly a celebration, seems like it could be tense or awkward sometimes. Any crazy stories you can share?
A: Well, in clubs, a lot of times you have to win the crowd over. Usually at weddings, people are already happy and get progressively happier with an open bar. Sometimes there can be tension but that’s normal for such a big event in people’s lives. Our job is to bring the party and ease that tension, so we really concentrate on people having a good time. Some of the weirdest moments and stories have come from the songs people ask us to learn and play. For instance, I once played a First Dance song called “The Stake” by Steve Miller. The lyrics include the line “burning, burning; you’re tied to the stake”; but hey, it’s their day and their song so whatever they want is cool with us.
Q: Speaking of specific songs, I’m guessing the set list is something that gets worked out with the happy couple. But what, in your opinion, makes the best wedding music? I mean, I’ve heard everything from Bach’s “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Dog Sh*t” at receptions. What’s the best balance?
A: I have about a nine-page song list so I usually sit down with the couple and go through the list highlighting the songs they like and drawing a line through the ones they don’t like.
Our song list is so diverse that it brings a sense of balance to the music. I make the set list from that so they are always hearing the songs they want and like. The best music for weddings is the music that the couple wants to hear, but we don’t normally kick out the jams with Wu-Tang Clan right after they cut the cake. Generally, we start out with music that is reverent of the occasion and we gradually move into party mode as the night progresses and people loosen their ties and let their hair down. However, sometimes people want to throw down the funk right off the bat and we can do that, too. We customize the show and music for each particular event so it’s really up the clients as to what the best balance is for their wedding.
Q: In that same sort of vein, I’m wondering in general about how you define success for a show. I mean, regardless of venue — wedding, concert, festival, anywhere — the audience always wants a great show. And the performer always wants a great show. But what, in your mind, makes a great show?
A: Well, to paraphrase an old commercial, always let them see you sweat. People may not like your music, but if you’re up there working hard and having fun, at least they’ll respect your work ethic. You can’t please everyone every time but when most of the people are smiling and dancing and having fun and I hand out 50 business cards, that’s usually a great show. People will tell you if you put on a great show. Having a lot of referrals from previous clients lets you know that you’re doing a good job, too.
Q: As to your particular talents, I understand the late James Brown, after seeing you perform in 2003, told you: “Boy when you sing, you sing the white right offa you!” Now, I’ve got to wonder what’s going through your head a) in meeting the Godfather of Soul and b) when you hear that compliment?
A: Yeah, that was a big moment for me, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather! He heard our sound check and came over with some of his band to check us out and ended up staying for our whole set. He was sitting right next to my wife and talked with her the whole time. As I was singing, I kept looking over at the two of them thinking, “James Brown is gonna steal my wife!” He was so kind to me, offering up little things he liked about our show. We did a Tower of Power song without a horn section and he thought that was pretty ballsy. Any compliment is great but when it comes from James Brown, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
Q: Finally, let me also ask you about the Arkansas Sounds Music Festival. For those who missed it last September, tell me a little about what it is and how it went. Also, based on planning so far, what’s in store for this year?
A: The Arkansas Sounds Music Festival is a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a department of the Central Arkansas Library System. It is an annual event held on the last weekend in September. This year that’s Friday, Sept. 27 and Saturday, Sept. 28. Arkansas Sounds is all about Arkansas music and musicians and during the festival we feature the original music of these artists. We have all styles of music from all over the state. Our inaugural festival was last year and it was a great success. We had folks coming into town from several states away to enjoy all the Arkansas music. We think the Festival will be even bigger and better this year. You’ll have to wait awhile before any big announcements though!
You can see the Big John Miller Band Saturday, March 16, at Montego Café, 315 Main St., downtown Little Rock. Showtime is 9 p.m.